Posts Tagged ‘death’

An elderly lady told me this week that she still feels like a young girl in her mind; it’s just her body that’s slowing down. My grandpa used to tell me, “I feel strong in my mind. I want to go outside and build something or go fishing, but my body just won’t let me.” Apparently it also happens in our youth more subtly, as the Navy Commander warned a young Top Gun named Maverick, “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” 

Listening to Springsteen this morning I caught a line I hadn’t really noticed before, 

“Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end”

Even if we find salvation, enlightenment, athletic prowess, or just a life well-lived, our bodies will betray us in the end, if our minds don’t go first. It’s just the way of nature. None of us get out of this alive, well not clinically speaking anyway.

Call me a Christian, a mystic, a romantic or an eternal optimist, but I believe we can live and die alive to life and to every moment. Jesus said, “even though he die, yet shall he live.” Some believe that’s about the next life, but it’s definitely speaking about this life too. He said, “Whoever wants to come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” When Ram Dass talked about that verse, he said, “The trick is to die before you die, then you can really live.” To die to our selfishness, our small selves, our fragile egos, our isolation, our way. To die to our deception that old age, sickness, and death comes to everyone else but us. 

When we die in that way, then shall we live. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” Rather than depress us, that simple truth wakes us up to the precious gift that life is, this day, this moment. 

Our bodies aren’t the enemy. We do what we can, when we can, and take care of them as best we can, but this is an awfully short ride in the big picture. Maybe it’s only a betrayal if you expected it to be otherwise. 

As I walked up to a nursing home this afternoon, I noticed a frail old man sitting on a bench outside. He was tall and thin and appeared to be at least 80. He was leaning over a bit, holding something to the tip of his nose. I thought it was sad that he couldn’t see any better and had to read like that. As I got closer, I saw that he was holding a worn 3 x 5 photo of him and his wife from at least 10 years earlier.

He didn’t just glance at the photo and tuck it back into his pocket. He looked long, hard and lovingly at the face that he saw every morning for most of his life. As I opened the door, he slid the picture slowly into his left shirt pocket and stared out into the distance. I felt like I witnessed something so intimate but so powerful. I felt intrusive just to be there but so grateful that I was.

Last Supper

In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me. ~ John 16:16

Today is a day of last things. No matter what you believe about the resurrection or deity of Jesus, it is indisputable that there was a last meal, a last message, a last embrace… a last breath. All of us will also experience last things. Although the certainties of my faith have given way to questions and mystery, these days are still holy for me. They are days of reflection and remembrance.

Too often the humanity of Jesus is swallowed up in reflections on his deity. I don’t believe Jesus had a death wish, but he knowingly challenged the powers that be in a time when it was dangerous to do so. He could have easily incited people to violence as a revolutionary. He could have caved to religious authority as a coward, but he chose the middle way, the hard way, to die for what he lived for.

I love Patty Griffin. She is a brilliant song writer and passionate performer. “Mary” is one of my favorite songs of hers. I invite you to listen to it and look at the passion of Christ through the eyes of one whose heart it touched most deeply.

Mary you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains
You cast aside the sheet, you cast aside the shroud
Of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
On some sunny day and always you stay, Mary

Jesus says, ‘Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer’
He flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Oh Mary she moves behind me
She leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Everytime the snow drifts, every way the sand shifts
Even when the night lifts, she’s always there

Jesus said, ‘Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer’
He flys right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ruins
you’re covered in secrets
Your’e covered in treetops, you’re covered in birds
who can sing a million songs without any words
You cast aside the sheets, you cast aside the shroud
of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
on some sunny day and always you stay
Mary, Mary, Mary

~ “Mary” by Patty Griffin

Yeah, I know. I haven’t been around much lately. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t had anything to write about or maybe too much to write about. Life happens. I haven’t felt like writing. It’s felt like an exercise, and I’ve been slack on that too for the last few weeks. There has been work, lots of work. There’s been sickness. Between the four of us somebody’s always passing something around. There’s been lots of family time, for which I’m very grateful, and there’s also been death. My grandmother ended her struggle with Alzheimer’s three weeks ago.

I never really expected to be affected by her passing as much as I was. I thought that I had dealt with this already. She started going downhill a few years ago, and for the last two rarely knew most of us. I don’t know that I fully grieved the loss a few years ago, or maybe it was a slow constant awareness of things lost. My feelings on the subject had degraded to indifference. Then she died.

I have been very fortunate in my life to have known all of my great grandparents during my childhood and also to have never lost an immediate family member in my now 31 years of life. I have had my share of death in the pastorate. It’s part and parcel with the trade. I spent many hours going through prolonged terminal illness with several people. You cannot help but become emotionally invested in others during such ordeals, but this was different.

Not only had we lost our grandmother, but in manys ways her passing closed a door on a huge portion of my life. Growing up as a child in south Louisiana is long since past and will not be again. Although myself and my cousins have grown up and are trying to find our way in the world, I believe each of us are those same little kids at Maw-Maw’s house. We may look like we’ve got it together, but in many ways we all still battle our same childhood insecurities. We just think when we’re kids that the grown ups have their act together. Ignorance is bliss, right? All sorts of family drama have not made handling any of this any easier.

My grandmother asked me a few years ago to preach her funeral. I agreed. Little did I know that I would no longer be pastoring churches and seldom preaching when the time came. The task is hard enough in and of itself, but so much of my belief system has radically changed. There are more things that I do not know than I used to know. Gone is the dogmatism. I live in the tension of mystery and paradox. I ended up spending most of my time ulogizing her and speaking briefly about her faith, which was also my faith. It didn’t help matters that her funeral fell on my birthday, but we move on, although walking slowly.

Do not hurry
As you walk with grief,
It does not help the journey.

Walk slowly,
Pausing often:
Do not hurry
As you walk with grief.

Be not disturbed
By memories that come unbidden.
Swiftly forgive;
And let Christ speak for you unspoken words
Unfinished conversation
Will be be resolved in Him.
Be not disturbed.

Be gentle with the one
Who walks with grief,
If it is you,
Be gentle with yourself.

Swiftly forgive;
Walk slowly
Pausing often.

Take time,
be gentle
As you walk with grief.

– From Celtic Daily Prayer by the Northumbria Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about death the last few weeks. Morbid, I know, but someone has to do it. I don’t know what happens when you die. I know all the lines about heaven and hell and what gets you where. I don’t think it works quite the way we’ve been told. The whole system is too conveniently construed to give power to those who want power and peace of mind to those who need peace of mind. Truthfully, I don’t think anything happens when you die. That really sucks when you think about it. Even hell seems preferable to nothing.

Listening to “Last Request (acoustic)” by Paolo Nutini a few days ago really brought home the gravity of the moment of our death and sums up my feelings about nothingness:

Slow down, lie down
Remember it’s just you and me
Don’t sell out, bow out
Remember how this used to be
I just want you to know something, is that alright?
Baby let’s get closer, tonight

[chorus]
Grant my last request and just let me hold you, don’t shrug your shoulders
Lay down beside me
Sure I can accept that we’re going nowhere
But one last time let’s go there
Lay down beside me, ohhh

I’ve found that I’m bound to wander down that long way road, ohhh
And I realise all about your lies,
But I’m no wiser than the fool that I was before.
I just want you to know something, is that alright?
Baby let’s get closer, tonight.

[chorus repeat]

Baby, baby, baby
Tell me how can, how can this be wrong?

[chorus repeat 2x]

Ooohhhh wohhhhohhh, yeah
Lay down beside me
One last time let’s go there,
Lay down beside me.

When you think about dying, it makes every day of living that much more precious. I don’t really know how long we have on this earth. Even if it were 80 years, it would not be enough. What matters most isn’t how much money you made and the stuff you’ve bought. What matters most is those you loved and the time you spent with each of them, which makes grieving over a death or loss of relationship all the more difficult.

Grief is a strange and unwelcome guest that you just don’t know what to do with and can’t wait to get rid of. I’ve been grieving in a way over leaving pastoral ministry. Not that I miss it, but that I get angry thinking of how I was used and tossed aside. Learning the painful truth that relationships were a means to an end for most people. They were friends with my position but not with me. I grieve over time wasted but find a measure of comfort in knowing it led me to where I am now. I also grieve over the loss of my childhood, the loss of innocence. Many people that I’ve talked to who have deprogrammed from ministry and from church go through a process of grieving with all of its stages. I’m somewhere in the mix… not where I was but not where I’m going. I’m just trying to take one day at a time and be myself. I’m not qualified to be more than that.

I’ve been working a lot the last few weeks, which is a good thing. I’m trying to get back on track making up for lost time, which has been a needed distraction. I’ve been able to be home a lot but not as much as I’d like. I’m looking forward to down time for the holidays and a change of pace come January. Something’s got to give. If you don’t mind, you might not hear from me again until 2008. Silence is therapeutic, and I’m overdue.

Happy holidays to all of you. I’ll drink a spiked egg nog in your honor and put 2007 to rest.

For all the laughs that Adam Sandler has delievered over the years his role in Spanglish set him apart as a serious actor. His performance in Reign on Me far surpasses even that achievement. I’ve always loved Don Cheadle. He’s just such a classy, likeable guy. Liv Tyler is so demure and ethereal. The cast as a whole works so well in this film, but the writing and directing are masterfully orchestrated. Mike Binder really amazed me. Who knew he could be capable of such art? He even has a small role in the movie.

The film is heavy without a doubt. How can you make a movie about a 911 widower struggling with grief light hearted? Nonetheless there is tremendous balance with just enough laughs and brevity to rivet your attention and keep your heart from breaking completely until just the right moment.

I haven’t cried watching a movie since Where the Red Fern Grows when I was 9. I cried during this movie! Did you hear me? I cried for God’s sake. I couldn’t help it. What was odd was that I finally broke near the end of the movie during a happy scene of all things. The film takes you into the depths of pain and heartache like few have done before, but it’s not a sad movie. It’s really not. It’s heart warming and endearing. It will make you cherish your life and all those in it that you love. It is a must see, and a must win for an Academy Award.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sin lately. No, I don’t have a guilty conscience. Quite the opposite. My conscience has never been clearer, although I think my fundy friends would say that it’s been “seared with a hot iron.” I consider it liberated from guilt theology. The big question of the day: is it even possible to sin? My short answer: no.

At a recent Interfaith Dialogue I was struck by how Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are so dominated by sin consciousness. The primary thrust of each religion appeared to be an attempt to find atonement for sin and be reconciled to God. My favorite college professor delievered the guest sermon at church yesterday. His teaching, along with Brennan Manning’s books, helped me to overcome the narcissistic guilt I inherited in the church growing up. True to form he preached about God’s forgiveness and willful forgetfulness of our sins. That is a very necessary message to help people come out of the trap that is fundamentalism. It’s like opening the prison doors and setting people free. I don’t want to play off the Matrix too much, but at this stage of the journey I’ve come to realize that there is no prison to begin with. We are imprisoned only by the smallness of our minds.

To tell guilt-ridden believers that there is no sin would probably do more harm than good. If they didn’t write you off as blasphemous but actually considered the possibility, it might well throw them into a theological tailspin. I read yesterday in Deepak Chopra’s book Quantum Healing that researchers proved that if newborn kittens are blindfolded within the first few days before their eyes are opened that they will be blind for life. Although they have perfectly healthy eyes, something gets crosswired in their brains permanently blinding them. Conditioning, especially in our formative years, is so powerful that it can cripple a person for life.

One of the statements that resonated with me so strongly months ago regarding the reality of sinfulness was made by Micael Ledwith in What the Bleep Do We Know!?:

The single greatest obstacle to our evolution is the way our culture often views God – as a God sitting up somewhere “registering the scores on his laptop as to whether we perform according to his designs or whether we’re offending him, as it’s put, an absolutely outrageous idea. How could we offend God? How could it matter so much to him? How could it, above all, matter that he would find it so serious a situation that he could conform us to an eternity of suffering? These are bizarre ideas.And they are bizarre ideas: that in this vast universe, where there are more galaxies than grains of sand in all the oceans, that in that vastness, a group of people – well, men actually – on a small planet got the exclusive franchise for the pearly gate arches of heaven. And every other being in the universe will spend an eternity of suffering in hell. It’s hard to imagine a more bizarre idea. And if that’s the sort of God you believe in, you just have to wonder: How does that affect your view of the world?

The more you think about it sin appears to be nothing more than a means of control. We’ve seen repeatedly in history how the dangers of hellfire can be a useful tool for the church to keep even Kings in line. It was just such a mockery that prompted Martin Luther to nail the 95 Thesis to the Wittenburg door, “As the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from pergatory springs.”

Is sin real? Is it possible to sin? Does our sinfulness really offend God? You couldn’t tell by looking around. If God is offended by our sinfulness or brokenhearted over our suffering, He doesn’t seem to do a hell of a lot about it. Does He? You cannot convince me that God or the Supreme Being or the Unified Field or the Force is offended by you lusting after a girl, failing to pay your tithes, or skipping out on church. So what is sin?

I think the word “sin” is damaged goods and loaded with baggage. I don’t think you can sin against God, but you can “sin” against your neighbor. As humans we have enormous potential for cruelty, as well as for good. Our pain and anger over the imbalance of justice in the world feeds the need for religions of atonement and damnation. We have this innate need to have our consciences cleared and believe that those who do evil will be punished in the next life to make the scales balance out again. When injury is done to another, the real consequence is that the whole of life is somehow diminished and robbed of joy, not that someone will burn in hellfire for all time.

It is a cold hard fact to grasp that the rich and poor, the kind and the cruel alike, will all die and turn to dust. There is evil and suffering in the world, and much of it has never been made right. I’ve learned that it is a common misconception that many people believe that one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that “life is suffering.” That is not true. Apparently the appropriate translation reads that “life contains suffering.” No amount of labeling and fear-mongering is going to change that. It’s been tried for the last few thousand years and look where it’s gotten us. Why not try a radically different approach? Instead of telling people how worthless, how no good, and how sinful they are, why don’t we try showing people the incredible potential they have as persons and as a collective whole? Now there’s a novel idea.

Maybe enlightenment is as elusive as chasing after the wind, but if we spent our energies pursuing nobler ideals, we would not waste so much time hurting each other and seeking to have control over anyone or anything else. Just my opinion.

A response to a friend’s post at The First Morning on caring for his mother with Alzheimer’s: 

David, I don’t believe people can truly understand until they’ve been there too. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s also, but she appears to be further progressed than your mom. She is a shell of a person. Aside from eating when spoon fed, she is not far from comatose most of the time. It is painful and has taken its toll on my entire family, especially my grandfather. In many ways I too consider her to have already died, but she hasn’t, so we grieve but not fully. It’s sort of the funeral that never ends.

When I think of how long Nancy Reagan cared for “Ronnie,” I am convinced that she deserves consideration for sainthood. My family’s situation is not yours. This is my grandmother, not my mom. Like others in my family I can try not to think about it. My grandfather is there everyday. We don’t have to be. It’s a selfish means of coping. I cannot know exactly what you’re going through, but I empathize no less. I will offer my prayers for you and your family as well, but, truthfully, we don’t know how to pray at times like these.

Watching my grandmother slip away, as well as watching hospice patients and parishoners go through the long process of dying, throws what is left of my faith into a tailspin. Why? How? What? When? Life may have its sanctity but where is its dignity? Even then Jesus gives voice to our brokenness “why have You forsaken me?”

Knowing nothing else to say, having nowhere else to turn, we go in the name of the forsaken one and pray simply, “Have mercy.”

Tammy FayeMy heart is suddenly heavy upon the news that Tammy Faye Messner died Friday ending her long battle with cancer. For some reasons fully beyond explanation I have always been very fond of her. I have childhood memories of the televangelist years of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker, but I am most familiar with her in later years. While I have no respect for televangelists or Christian empires, I have always had the greatest respect for Tammy Faye. I suppose mostly for what she has endured and done so with much grace. She was full of light and joy that did not seem to rest on cliches and stardom. I found her most endearing on Jay’s documentary series “One Punk Under God,” where her relationship with him was so inspiring. I feel for him and the entire family on losing such a sweet spirit. Goodbye, Tammy Faye. You’re a sweetheart.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you will know that I’ve been like a kid in the candy store the last year and a half learning to live life all over again. I’ve been through self-admitted detox to break my addiction to vocational Christianity and have begun the journey to truly know Christ and to know myself. My family is well and happy. I wish I could freeze time and keep my two boys at 4 and 1.5 years old forever, if not for the joy of watching them grow up. I’m in love with my wife who is still my best friend after 13 years. My business is finally turning a corner, and 2006 is looking to be my best year yet. I’m in love with life and am pursuing my passions.

Before you think I’m in a state of disillusioned euphoria, let me tell you that I have never been more in touch with reality. My mood vacillates almost as much as the balance in my checkbook. All things considered life is good, very good, and for that reason death is beginning to sting. Watching my kids grow up and the seasons change makes time seem to race on by. Who knows how many more years God will allow me. Forty, if I’m lucky. 1976 didn’t used to seem that long ago. My grandparents are getting older, and their health is failing. My grandfather was invincible when we were growing up, and now he seems very human. My grandmother has alzheimers and doesn’t even know her own husband or her own children anymore.

I read the Bible differently these days. I try to read it for what it really says, not for what I want it to say, or for what others have told me it says. [This is the point in the movie where you may want to change channels for a bit or risk getting really messed up theologically.] I’m not so sure anymore what I believe about heaven and hell. If both are real, something tells me people won’t be divided up so nice and neatly as we’ve been led to believe. If Jesus told us anything about it, He said that there will be a lot of surprises for many people. Some days I default to the nice Sunday School version of life that allows you to sleep in peace knowing that you’re an insider and have nothing to worry about. Some days I think that the blood of Christ covers every sin and no one is turned away. Some days I wonder if we just don’t die like every other creature and cease to be, simply return to the earth from which we came. No matter, death still stings.

I fell in love with the music of Johnny Cash some time last year, especially his later recordings. Johnny Cash was a man in touch with death and pain. He was able to vocalize what we think and feel about death like no other. You cannot listen to his music and not come face to face with your own mortality, which, I believe, is the key to truly enjoying life. The stark reality of death makes life more precious.

I don’t think we should live in fear of death but nor should we surrender to it. I’ve seen many terminally ill people over the years who cling to every last breath they can muster long after their body has given out. There is something in the human spirit that fights against death and clings to life. I’m not afraid to die, but not because I know exactly what happens after death. I’m not afraid to die, because I know God and trust Him to do with me what He will. Until my time comes, and it will, I will celebrate life and enjoy every day I’m given. One day, I will fight the good fight then lay this body down and rest in Him.